The Word For World is Forest,
Ursula K Le Guin,
Gollancz SF Masterworks
Originally published in 1972 as a novella in Again, Dangerous Visions (edited by the great Harlan Ellison, who suggested the title – Le Guin originally called it Little Green Men) then expanded to a novel (albeit a very short one at a mere 128 pages) in ’76, a part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, the diminutive size of The Word For World is Forest belies its power. To those of you familiar with the works of Le Guin – surely one of our truly great Queens of Words and Stories – that will come as little surprise; others of her works, such as the magnificent Left Hand of Darkness are not long novels either, and yet because of her skill they simply don’t need to be, she makes all her lines count, and the thoughts behind them, to produce work that lingers in the mind, provoking contemplation long after you put the book down.
Several centuries in the future and humans have expanded into space, entering an age of stellar colonisation. There are some changes for the better, not just advancing technologically but it seems by this era Earth people have set aside their differences on race, at least among one another. But the term “human” encompasses more than just homo sapiens – in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of novels we have a much older humanoid race, the Hain, who seeded many worlds eons past, leading to a number of different-looking but related human species and biospheres. And while slow progress towards these worlds and different members of a galactic human family working together is moving along, there is an awful lot of negative aspects to human behaviour we’re all to familiar with from our history and, sadly, our present. Earth is denuded of many natural resources, even her once teeming, verdant forests, gobbled up in an insatiable quest for more resources to exploit, and these new worlds offer rich pickings, especially for those with less than honourable morals. And just as with the colonial overlords of the ages of empire, there are men – and they are all men, soldiers, loggers, scientists – who go out to these distant places, with general instructions, but knowing they are far from contact with home and that they can effectively run it like their own private fiefdom.
Such a man is Captain Davidson, in charge of one of the remote logging camps, first glimpsed congratulating himself on being such a manly specimen of the officer class and yelling at his local servant – he and some of the more arrogant Earthers refer to them as “creechies” – in a pidgin tongue which all too clearly recalls the self-important colonial era overlords and their supreme self-assurance that they were entitled to be over other species because, clearly, they were superior. The local intelligent species, the Athsheans, despite being much smaller than Terrans and furry, are part of that galactic human diaspora the Hainish seeded the galaxy with. As such the rules state they must be treated with respect, there can be no coercion and indeed Davidson and the other officers explain there is no such evil as slavery in their colony (New Tahiti at they dub it), just “voluntary” local workers. Voluntary including being marched into the Earth camps and town, being held in pens and treated like lowly animals…
Despite being part of the Hainish human stock, it’s clear many of the Terrans, especially Davidson, simply don’t see them as actual humans, or if they do, they seem them as an inferior breed – smaller, weaker, lazy (why haven’t they stripped all their huge forests for resources and to clear arable land like the “civilised” Earth men?). This distaste at the perceived inferiority of the natives does not, however, stop them having sex with the females – usually by force (again far too many sad echoes of history in those vile acts). Of the Earth team only the scientist, the anthropologist Raj Lyubov, seeks to actually understand the native culture and befriends some of them, notably Selver, who he saves from the brutal Davidson. The Athsheans have a very peaceful culture, aspects of their society and culture shared between the men and women of their groups, the older ones, especially the head woman, holding a place of respect and, most remarkably, they all partake in a regular form of lucid dreaming. In fact they do so to such an extent that they have little distinction between the waking world and the dreamtime, and both play a role in their decision making, with some noted as especially great dreamers. While they hunt and kill forest animals there is no real violence between the Athsheans themselves, and as such they are socially and psychologically ill-prepared for violent, greedy Terrans – a people who don’t really dream properly, who even use hallucinogens (drugs are freely available) to give them what, to the Athsheans appear to be poisoned, deformed dreams. Clearly although they are men, they are not well…
The peaceful Athsheans eventually come to resist the colonial forces oppressing them. With no history or even concept of killing another human, let alone warfare, the change comes when Davidson rapes and kills Selver’s wife, leading to a confrontation. Saved by Lyubov and returned to his people, the beaten Selver dreams for days, deep, dark dreams. The great dreamers of the village listen to his dreams and the message is clear, something has to be done and the dreamtime has shown Selver how, and he must bring this concept from the dreaming into the waking world, becoming a “sha’ab”, a term that means both translator and god. And soon thousands of Athsheans, a people who normally live in small, peaceful, social groups, start to come together to follow his dream, which will lead to bloodshed.
This short novel is redolent with echoes of the many outrages and disgraces any number of colonial, imperialist powers have shown to the locals they come to dominate, and it’s not just historical, those aspects of the book, along with the rapacious desire to plunder the natural world without thought of consequence or responsibility is not unfamiliar to our own present day either. There are more direct allusions though – Le Guin wrote this still cloaked in much anger at the scenes from the Vietnam War, which she had protested through the 60s and early 70s, and while this does give some elements that “of its time” feeling, for the most part it remains far too relevant to the here and now (I wish it didn’t, that we were better than that by now, but it often seems we’re not), with some scenes very reminiscent of the war in Asia (the firebombed clearings in the forest where the Earthmen set up their fortified camps, the Athsheans all but invisible in their great forest, suddenly appearing) and even some direct comparisons – the commanding officer Colonel Dongh orders Davidson to behave, and tells him that people from his part of Earth know that even a technologically advanced force can’t hold down a resistant people dispersed through a concealing landscape.
But this isn’t just a straight story of colonial masters and oppressed natives striking back, or a parable about greed and ecological damage. This is also a psychological and spiritual story, an examination of how their seeming power corrupts those who are in charge (or think they are), but also, crucially, about how having to resist such evil also infect and corrupts the oppressed. Because in having to learn to fight back – to take another human life – the Athsheans will have to change, and even Selver, the god who brought this knowledge from the dreaming, is terrified of what this will do both to him and to his people. Evil acts, like a viral infection, and a fall from grace for these gentle inhabitants of a natural Eden. Learn to fight the Terrans and maybe they have a chance to save their culture and their world, but the cost on their souls may be heavy. It’s not hard to see that also as perhaps an observation of what violence and warfare can do to even the best of people, even those who fight on the side of right and good still often feel revulsion and horror at the acts they have to perpetrate, haunted in their dreams forever after, and for the Athsheans whose dreaming is an essential part of their life, how much worse that must be.
It’s a compact tale, a masterclass by a powerful writer who fashions a lean narrative where others might have produced a much larger, bloated tome, and yet for all the brevity Le Guin delivers not just a narrative but a believable alien world and society in short yet compelling scenes. Some forty years on as this new SF Masterworks edition comes out (as a bonus featuring a thoughtful introduction by the excellent Ken MacLeod, as well as Le Guin’s own intro), this still retains huge power to provoke thoughts and to make the reader reconsider troubling events in our own day and age in a different light.